Discovering Indian Culture

India’s influence on world history cannot be overstated. It’s home to more than a billion people – and over thousands of years has been right at the centre of trade between Europe and the Far East. With such an enormous population, and such a long and varied history, it’s small wonder that the nation has produced such a smorgasbord of culture.

In this article, we’ll see exactly why that’s so.

Food in India

Food might seem like a trivial topic on which to commence such an overview – but food is something which is of huge importance culturally. It allows for artistry and self-expression, is heavily determined by local custom, as well as the physical geography which influences what crops and livestock can be cultivated.

burmese curry buffet at yangon myanmar market

burmese curry buffet at street stall in yangon myanmar market

In the west, we consider ourselves quite familiar with food from the Indian subcontinent. This is especially true in the UK, where regular trips to the local Balti house are almost a requirement of citizenship.

But, as most Indians will never tire of pointing out, the food served in Asian restaurants in Europe bear little in common with those served in Delhi or Mumbai. The average Indian is likely to regard Madras curry powder, for example, is a frightful abomination – bereft of the sorts of subtlety of flavour found in much of Indian cuisine.

Another point of difference is that much of the Indian diet is vegetarian. So much so, in fact (depending on the study cited) around a third of the population is exclusively so – a higher proportion than any other country in the world. These vegetarians are largely comprised by the Brahmin caste – a caste traditionally regarded as role models and moral exemplars. But others also forgo meat for religious reasons. Jainism, one of the oldest religious traditions in the world, is practiced widely in India, and forbids its followers from harming any living creature. Naturally, this precludes those followers from eating meat.

In India, there is even a mandatory labelling system which distinguishes vegetarian products from their meat-containing counterparts – a green dot in a green square signifies the former, while a brown dot in a brown square indicates the latter.

The idea that meat eating can lead to moral uncleanliness persists in India to this day. As recently as 2012, a children’s textbook on health and hygiene was published in India, advising its readers that meat eaters “easily cheat, lie, forget promises and commit sex crimes.” The book cited, amusingly, the ‘fact’ that “The Arabs who helped in constructing the Suez Canal lived on wheat and dates and were superior to the beef-fed Englishmen engaged in the same work.” A grovelling apology and a withdrawal followed soon after.

Baldly stated, such sentiments might seem so insane as to be laughable – but the tendency to attach moral worth to what one puts into one’s body can be found in societies across history. This might come in the form of religious guidance on halal and kosher foods, and secular (though unspoken) prohibitions in the west against eating cats, dogs and any other animal whose life we might value over those of others, or any part of the animal which might have a disgusting biological function.

Of course, most people don’t trouble themselves with such high-minded concerns; they simply eat the foods with which they are familiar, and which are readily available. If a large enough section of the population abides by a certain cultural convention, then it’s likely that that convention will seep into society at large – if only to avoid ruffling feathers at restaurants. Consequently, Indian cuisine is comprised enormously of chickpeas, lentils and pulses.

As India is a very large and populous country, its cuisine varies tremendously from one region to the other. In the Punjab, for example, many leafy vegetables, like spinach, are grown. This has led to the popularity of Saag Paneer. Saag is a word which refers to any green vegetable, but mustard leaves and fenugreek are common – as are spinach leaves, while Paneer is a sort of white unsalted cheese, which complements the leafy greens nicely. Together the two form a nutritious staple dish which is beloved by locals and visitors alike!

Language in India

There is no official language in India. Across the country, several different languages are spoken, of which Hindi is the most popular. But Hindi-speakers are far from forming a majority – according to the Times of India, 59% speak a language other than Hindi. Other common languages include Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil and Urdu.

Religion in India

Hindu temple with indian gods kuala lumpur malaysia

Hindu temple with indian gods in kuala lumpur malaysia

India is responsible for some of the world’s most ancient religious practices. It’s the birthplace of both Hinduism and Buddhism, which respectively constitute the world’s third and fourth most popular religions. The majority of India’s population fall under the former religion.

But Hinduism is not a single monolithic block – there are several different sects within it, with the four most notable being Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakteya and Smarta. Unlike western religions, the faith has no central authority, and many Hindus claim to be independent of any of these four sects, preferring instead to interpret their faith as they see fit. This has produced a variety of different beliefs about the nature of reality – some of which are entirely at odds with one another!

Broadly speaking, Hindus consider God to be divided into three forms – Brahma, the maintainer; Vishnu, the creator; and Shiva, the destroyer. Christians might note a strong parallel between this trio and the Christian idea of the trinity. But in actuality, there are some considerable differences between the two ideas. Hindus tend to focus their worship on one of the three forms rather than accepting the whole, and, depending on the sect, many reject the idea of threefold god altogether.

Shaivism, for instance, focuses on Shiva. According to believers, Shiva performs the three main actions attributed to the trio as a whole – namely, creation, preservation and destruction, as well as concealing and revealing grace.  Thus, to Shaivites, Shiva is not merely the god of destruction, but the god of – well, just about everything.

Hinduism is not the only game in town; around 13% of the population of India are Muslim – which might not sound like a large amount, but when you consider that India is home to more than a billion people, it becomes clear that it’s one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. The country is home to a significant number of Christians, Sikhs and Non-believers, too.

Music in India

Western audiences might think of eastern music as wholly alien and – well, a little bit weird – sounding. If we’re watching a film where the action suddenly moves to Mumbai, we might hear a jangle of sitar to help us get our bearings – but our exposure to the stuff largely ends there.

Indian classical music shares a surprising amount in common with western stuff. It divides an octave, for example, into twelve semitones. The differences between the two lie principally in tuning. Indian music typically relies on just-intonation tuning, while western music uses equal-temperament tuning. Of course, elucidating exactly what this means is beyond the scope of this article, and would require far more patience than the average reader can be expected to exhibit!

So why do so many of our most celebrated composers seem to be white Europeans? Why isn’t there an Indian Mozart, Beethoven or Wagner?

We find the answer in the fact that Indian composers did their work on the fly – instead of meticulously prescribing which notes were to be played when, India’s musical tradition emphasises improvisation. Indian music was traditionally taught via an oral tradition, with a teacher (or guru) imparting their knowledge to a student (or shishya) in person. It wasn’t until the 20th century that people decided to start writing things down – largely as a result of colonialism, and the desire to collaborate with western musicians.

Textiles in India

Decorated colorful Textile

Different coloured and decorated textiles in Indian silk outside a shop

The modern Indian textile industry is the second largest sector in the country, in terms of the sheer volume of people it keeps in employment. The country’s history of weaving and spinning extends as far back as four thousand years ago, and healthy trade relations between China and Europe via the silk road has kept the craft in rude health ever since.

The Mughal period saw Indian carpet-making become famous throughout the world. Persian artisans were brought in by mogul Akbar along with skilled local artists, who designed the patterns. Throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, carpet making thrived – carpets were woven from the best wool and silk, and were exported far and wide.

Carpets of the period were notable for their high density of knots. The palaces of the Murgal emperors Jahangi and Shah Jahan were graced with some of the world’s finest rugs, and northern population hubs like Kashmir and Jaipur developed as epicentres of the trade.

This was to change in the 19th century, when the industrial revolution was well underway in Europe. Demand for high-quality silk was high, and so much of the best material was diverted away from Indian carpet makers. It was only after independence was declared in 1947 that Indians were able to restore their industry to its prior glory. Through the internet, Indian artisans are now able to manufacture rugs of the highest quality, and sell them throughout the world!

Clothing in India

As well as carpets, Indian textiles have also contributed an enormous amount to clothing. The omnipresent sari, for example, can be found across the subcontinent – its manufacture alone keeps more than six-and-a-half million people in employment. The Sari is a single, uncut length of cloth which is a few feet wide and between five and nine yards long. Saris come in a vast range of colours, and decorated with a seemingly endless array of flourishes.

The moral sensibilities of Victorian England had a part to play in determining how the sari was to be worn – during the 19th century, it became the custom for Indian women to wear undergarments beneath their sari, and this is a practice which persists to this day.

You might not think that such a simple garment would have much scope for expressiveness. But a sari can be worn in a multitude of ways – some designers put this figure as high as eighty! Indian women also have a raft of other forms of traditional dress – including the Salwar Kameez, which consists of a simpler set of loose trousers (the salwar) and a tunic top (the kameez), which is comparable with the Sari in popularity, and comes in a variety of different sorts.

It’s not just women who’ve benefited from India’s fashion output, however – men, too, enjoy a few recognisably Indian items of clothing. These include the dhoti, which, like the sari, consists of a single long strip of cotton. It’s often paired with a sarong-like item of clothing called a lungi. Lungis come in two varieties – some are open, while others are stitched closed.

Then, of course, there’s the turban – which is distinctive throughout the world. It comes in a multitude of different sorts – of which the best-known is the dastar, which is the sort of turban worn by Sikhs in order to protect their uncut, long hair. Other forms of Indian headgear have been popularised more recently – Mahatma Ghandi’s white cap was widely adopted among supporters of the independence movement, and has been worn proudly by many Indians ever since!





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